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30 years ago, I packed my bags for Plattsburgh State. The fear of leaving home for the first time was readily apparent. Regardless, I beat that 20 minutes after my parents left me for dead. As for the major I chose, that was another story.
Computer Science is some pretty rough stuff—especially if you’re only of above average intelligence. That’s right, I think I’m pretty smart. After all, I did graduate with a degree in the digital discipline.
Blood pressure elevated by my fourth semester, I made it through the major's silver standard—Data Structures. A course that most failed the first time, I felt really smart now.
A Professor to Avoid?
The gold standard was Plattsburgh's Operating Systems, but fortunately the course was not among my requirements. It was, though, among a close friend's who also shared in the difficulty of the field.
He had a frequent refrain as I was trudging through my challenge. “Stearns,” was all Pele would say.
Daniel J. Stearns was the instructor offering Operating Systems and was someone I knew to avoid. As it turned out, he was the only professor who taught a requirement called Computer Architecture. So I braced myself for the inevitable.
Geek or Not to Geek
Circling back, the ensuing intersection requires context. The stereotype shows that the higher you go in technological proficiency, the more likely you shrink in social situations. The word I'm looking for is geek.
Of course, for every Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg boring us with painful humor, there's probably a Steve Jobs who blends in.
Ok, that 2:1 ratio might be a bit kind in regards to the higher end intelligence of the field. My mere above average intelligence clearly relegates me apart from the "two" in question. That said, I'm good in sports, my humor doesn't involve pain, and I've been known at times to work the room like a pro.
As for women, I’m clearly a among the geeks. Let's just say that had the Big Bang Theory been around then, I wouldn't have had to drown all my tactical failures with the opposite sex in the 79 original episodes of Star Trek.
Being a Trekkie didn't help either but I added to my roundedness with an insatiable interest in history and politics. The minor in history suggests this, and a lecture with F. Lee Bailey in spring '85 had me eagerly awaiting his presentation.
Enter Professor Stearns
In this, I make my segue to Professor Stearns, because as I look up, he's in attendance. But that's not the most impressive thing. He was flanked with at least 10 of his students. I wondered if my friend was wrong.
As the day arrived in September, I was unsure what to expect. He opened with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was among our reading.
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder was an overview of Computer Architecture that was intended for the lay person to gain an understanding of how computers work at the lowest level. The true account was also the human story of the monumental struggle to produce the latest technological innovation in computers. But for our intents, the content would be mostly useless in learning the specifics.
The word I'm looking for here is inspiration. I had my doubts but I was intrigued.
He then mentioned a character in the book named Tim Wallach. Catching himself, he said, "excuse me, Steve Wallach. Tim Wallach plays for the Expos.”
I was blown away. Meaning, had Stearns mis-referenced Tom Seaver, he's just another person who knows a big name star. But Tim Wallach was a little known player, and Dan Stearns knew him. Like me and unlike Bill Gates, he was a real baseball fan.
I was feeling pretty good.
But as things moved along, the grumbling began—especially since Mr. Stearns wasn't doing much teaching. He addressed the noise by writing the number "4" on the chalkboard. “Every senior level course begins with this number," he said. "That means you read the text and come back with questions.”
That probably didn't sit well, but he was right. The word I'm looking for now is respect. As in telling us how it was, he had mine.
As such, reading this text made voluminous amounts of Data Structures programming seem simple. It was said that Operating Systems had students spending about an hour on each page of text. That’s how hard it was. Computer Architecture had me spending about half an hour per page.
Inspiration and respect got me to the middle of the page and having a professor I related to, let me turn it. The end result: I received my customary and required “C”
Take My C and Run
I could program and nothing short of death was going to stop me from completing weekly assignments. But given the similar idea on a test, I drew blank.
Because the department feared students would copy programs, the programming work only amounted to 20 percent of the grade. This despite accounting for 80 percent of the work.
Tests made up the rest, and the “D” and “A” averages rounded to the “C” that was required. Nonetheless, under this scenario, I asked Professor Stearns if my “C” was ensured. "C", he said, "I'm thinking of giving you an “A".
Still, C it was. Probably had to go by the book, but he always aspired us to “think differently.”
My favorite was his belief that Computer Science students should double major in Philosophy and English—with the emphasis on English.
In fact, once I correctly described "hard wired" as having the wires “going straight” into the computer’s circuitry. He wrote on my test, “going straight means averting the criminal life.” He took off five points, but it was well worth the laugh.
The last time I saw Professor Stearns was before he left for Cal Poly Tech in 1986. Breezing past his office, I shot off a challenge. “Hey, you want to play some tennis.”
Not hesitating, he rose and then dispatched of me in similar fashion on the court.
I went onto a few jobs in the field, but if tests made me nervous, how do you think I dealt with bosses and real world deadlines?
In short, chest pains and headaches were aplenty, so I did not last long. Now, I’m a writer and given the importance professor Stearns put on the English language, it sounds like I was properly inspired.
Respects, Professor Stearns.